Real Madrid added another mind-boggling comeback to the club’s long history of magical European nights on Wednesday but the revival against Manchester City may prove to be less about the past and more about the future.
Karim Benzema scored the winning penalty in extra-time to take his tally to 10 goals in six Champions League knock-out games, an astonishing record not least because of the stage, the class of opponent and the weight of his contributions.
Against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and City, it was a goal by Benzema that sent Madrid through.
There was also Luka Modric, the 36-year-old who for long spells was again the most influential player on the pitch, and Thibaut Courtois, whose left-footed save to deny Jack Grealish in the 87th minute felt inconsequential at the time, but within minutes became transformative.
In the 90th minute, Rodrygo levelled the game and in the 91st, he levelled the tie.
Many would circle Benzema, Modric and Courtois as Madrid’s most important players this season, the trio delivering in the biggest games and most definitive moments, all of them fundamental to Madrid dominating La Liga and now booking a meeting with Liverpool in the Champions League final.
But when the final whistle blew at the Santiago Bernabeu, before the substitutes ran on and the hugging and dancing began, only Courtois was still playing. Modric had departed in the 75th minute, Benzema in the 105th.
Standing next to them among the cluster of players on the bench were Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Vinicius Junior and Eder Militao, all among Madrid’s most distinguished players, all of them substituted by Carlo Ancelotti.
On for Kroos came Rodrygo, the 21-year-old Brazilian who has been overshadowed by Vinicius and whose goal against Chelsea, again as a substitute, was overshadowed by the mesmeric Modric assist.
But it was his finish that launched the fightback against Chelsea and his incredible late double that sank City, coming not coincidentally but as a reward for 20 minutes of running, positivity and threat.
After flicking in Benzema’s cushioned pass and then heading in Dani Carvajal’s cross, it was then his fizzed ball in that Benzema collected in extra-time before tumbling over to earn the penalty.
Modric was replaced by Eduardo Camavinga, the 19-year-old midfielder whose contributions this season have been eye-catching but limited, both by the seemingly interminable trio ahead of him and by Ancelotti’s reluctance to rotate.
Camavinga was instrumental, his floated pass to the back post finding Benzema for Rodrygo’s first goal while it was his feed out to the right that created the opening that led to the spot-kick.
In the second leg against Chelsea, Camavinga replaced Kroos in the 73rd minute and Real Madrid’s goals came in the 80th and 96th minutes. In the return against PSG, he replaced Kroos in the 57th minute and the goals came in the 61st, 76th and 78th.
“The future of Real Madrid is assured, because Casemiro, Kroos and Modric are going to continue, and later, behind them we have a lot of quality,” Ancelotti said.
By the end, the 25-year-old Dani Ceballos was anchoring Madrid’s midfield and Jesus Vallejo, also 25, was shoring up the defence.
The 23-year-old Fede Valverde, who lasted the whole game, furthered his own growing reputation as a player for the big occasion. The 21-year-old Vinicius was a constant menace down the left, even if he was admittedly not at his most precise.
“None of the players gave up,” said Ancelotti. “Rodrygo came on and scored twice, Vallejo won all his aerial balls, I congratulate all of them.”
When Real Madrid face Liverpool in Paris later this month, Ancelotti will put faith again in his trusted grandees, the ones like Benzema, Modric, Casemiro and Kroos, who are looking for a fifth Champions League triumph, in what will be their fifth final in nine years.
The hope will be they may have also imbued their younger teammates with some of their spirit and experience, that sheer force of will that seems to make these miraculous nights more common at Real Madrid than elsewhere.
But the victory against City and this remarkable run to the final have also relied on the next generation coming to the fore, offering at least some reassurance for when this iconic team eventually begins to dissolve.